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A Letter on Germany

July 28, 1998
Professor Gordon Craig
Menlo Park, California
Dear Gordon:

This letter is being typed by ninety-four-year-old fingers, in a seaside cottage here in Norway, on an ancient Royal typewriter that the cottage turned out to be harboring. So kindly forgive the numerous imperfections.

The occasion for writing it is that some time ago, on departing for Europe, I finally found time to read your very fine article on Germany, and particularly Berlin, tucked away at the very end of the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs, and it set me thinking. (Why it was thus buried I do not know. I can find no explanation. It should, in quality and importance, have been the leading article in that issue.)

I, as you probably know, lived some four to five years of my life in Berlin, first primarily as a graduate student in Russian studies at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University in the years 1929 to 1931, and then for another two and a quarter years, 1939 to 1941, as an officer of the American Embassy there during the war (a tour of duty that ended with some six months of wartime imprisonment in another part of Germany). The city meant a great deal to me—was, in fact, largely formative for my own education and thinking of the time. So I was greatly interested in your article. And since it occurred to me that I had never set forth anywhere the development of my own attitudes toward Berlin and Germany over all these years (only a part of it appeared in the chapter on Germany in my memoirs), it might be useful to you, and a good discipline for me, if I were to try to summarize them in this letter.

During the student years in Berlin, and later while serving in Riga and Tallinn, I read a good deal of, and was greatly impressed by, the fine German fiction of that period. But it was, for professional reasons, Russia rather than Germany that was then the main subject of my study and attention. I knew very little of earlier German history; and I was not inclined, nor would I have thought myself competent, to do any serious thinking about that country in historical perspective. This changed, however, when I found myself serving in our Berlin embassy between 1939 and 1941.

I had—I think it was only shortly before the war—been much impressed by the post-World War I book of the conservative French thinker Jacques Bainville entitled Les ConsÌ©quences politiques de la paix ^1, in which he castigated the statesmen of the victor powers at the Versailles peace conference for promoting the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire while leaving Germany, albeit defeated and helpless as it then was, the single great state in Europe, confronting across its eastern and southeastern borders only a number of new, inexperienced, and unstable smaller political entities which, he predicted, would never be able to stand up to the future Germany in a pinch. This made sense to me at the time; and it clearly found vindication in the tragic events of 1938-1939.

All this led me to the conclusion that, since no restoration of the old Hapsburg Empire was now possible, the best solution for the postwar era would be a partition of Germany into two, or at the most three, separate states, all of them to be embraced within the framework of an extensively unified Europe. If this could not be achieved, then one would of course have to settle for a unified Germany. But it should then be a neutralized and largely disarmed one, devoid of alliances either to the east or to the west, and capable of serving as the balancing fulcrum for all of Central and Eastern Europe, and particularly between the Western powers and Russia. This would in other words have been an arrangement much along the lines of what had been envisaged at one time by Bismarck, and at a later date by such statesmen as Rathenau and Stresemann, but without the powerful military backbone that Bismarck, at least, had had in mind.

Such an arrangement would of course have been anathema to both the French and the British, unable to free themselves (as they still partly are) from the trauma of the First World War. But I thought that these attitudes on their part were never fully justified, and ought to have no place in any contemporary postwar settlement.

It was, in any case, by the principles and preferences just described that I carried on with my various forms of official service during World War II. But such hopes were of course knocked into the proverbial cocked hat by the superficial and, to my mind, frivolous actions of the victor powers in the immediate aftermath of the war. The cession of most of Germany east of the Elbe to the Poles appeared to me at the time, and still does, as a fateful and wholly unnecessary folly, the full and final effects of which we have still to taste. And the plans for the postwar occupation of Germany, and for the relations with the Russians over these problems, struck me as equally ill-advised.

With all of this neither I nor in fact the State Department itself had much of anything to do. All this was left at the time to the White House and to the heads of the armed forces establishments that participated in the occupation of the western part of Germany. But when, in the final stages of the Berlin blockade, in 1949, the State Department, now under Mr. Acheson’s direction, reluctantly agreed to participate in another meeting with the Russians at the foreign minister level, it fell to me, now director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, to come up with recommendations for the position we should adopt at such a meeting—a meeting that would obviously have to deal primarily with the Berlin blockade and the future of Germany. After long and numerous consultations both within and outside the State Department, the Policy Planning Staff named two possible alternatives for the way we might go. One was, in effect, to do nothing: to continue to stand on demands that we knew the Russians would not and could not accept—demands based upon our plans for the setting up of a west German government in which they would have no place—and to hope that they would nevertheless agree to the ending of the blockade (which they finally did).

The other alternative, referred to in our recommendations as “Plan A,” was that we take the occasion to explore with the Russians the prospects for a limited withdrawal of both their occupational forces and ours from the heart of Germany, making way for the establishment, in the middle, of a disarmed and neutralized (I stress those words) German state, its government to be formed on the basis of supervised national elections, but still to be subject, in certain respects, to a modified four-power control. We defined a number of safeguards which, we thought, could be established to rule out any abuse of such an arrangement by the Russians. But we pointed out that the French and British would have to be consulted before we could proceed along such lines.

Well, you will recall the unhappy fate of Plan A. Someone, somewhere (I was told, from the military side), deliberately, on the eve of the Paris foreign ministers’ meeting, leaked to James Reston (who promptly made a front-page New York Times story out of it) a highly distorted version of what the plan was meant to be. No mention was made here either of the safeguards we had stipulated or of the recommendation for prior consultation with the French and British. The latter thus gained their knowledge of it from a misleading press report before we had even mentioned it to them on the official level. They were outraged; and our government promptly, publicly, and indignantly disowned the entire proposal. (The remainder of the State Department, incidentally, showed nothing but satisfaction over this turn of events; and I have yet to hear that the leak of this highly classified document—a glaring breach of official security—was ever protested or investigated in any quarter.)

I was often confronted, after this fiasco, with the critical objection: “But the Russians would never have agreed anyway to anything like Plan A.” My answer to this question was: “Perhaps. But you will never know what they might or might not have agreed to unless and until you had engaged them in patient and realistic negotiations, and these mostly at the preliminary clandestine level.” I thought it likely that they would have paid a higher price than most people might think to get the American forces out of the greater part of Germany. Nor would we, just because we had chosen to take these soundings with the Russians, have been obliged to accept any Russian reactions or demands that we found too adverse to our own interests.

I see today, more clearly than I perhaps did at the time, how formidable were the forces arrayed against me in this matter. There were the French and British, afraid of their own shadows and terrified at the thought that there might be a unified Germany not under Western, and predominantly American, control. There was the European Division of the State Department, always strongly Paris-oriented and quite ready to consign both Germany and Soviet Russia to the outer darkness. There were the American military, who had come to love in many respects their highly privileged and powerful position in the occupied Germany. And of course there was, outstandingly, Konrad Adenauer, who, powerful and impressive figure that he was, viewed the Germans east of the Elbe, I suspect, as having been (the phrase was, I believe, Sigmund Freud’s) “baptized late and very badly,” and had no enthusiasm for taking them into the future Germany at all. And finally, there was Dean Acheson, who had no personal knowledge whatsoever of Germany and placed far more confidence, when it came to policies toward that country, in Adenauer’s views than in those of anyone in our own government.

I realize, thinking back on all of this, that the concept of Plan A may appear to many, even in retrospect, as atrociously naive. But one should remember what was then at stake. Had any progress been made along the lines I was proposing, eastern Germany might have been spared some thirty years—the span of an entire generation—of Communist control. And while it is true that the people of that region never had any great political sympathy for communism even in the ensuing years of that control, they were nevertheless deeply affected, in ways of which they were probably not normally conscious, by certain habits and assumptions defining the daily discipline of life under that sort of regime. And one sees the consequences of that discipline in the difficulty encountered by the present German government in its efforts to integrate the people of that region into the life of the remainder of Germany.

I should also note, in this connection, that the position our government took, and took successfully, at that meeting, left Berlin in exactly the same precarious situation, surrounded on every side by Communist power, that had led to the blockade in the first place. This struck me as both absurd and dangerous.

This fling with the problems occasioned by the Berlin blockade was, not surprisingly, the final and total end of my official involvement with American policy toward Germany. I resigned, anyway, from the Foreign Service soon after the experience just described. But I was sometimes moved to recall, thinking on those difficult years, the well-known conflicts within the respective German foreign offices of the Kaiser’s time as well as during the later Weimar period between the so-called “easterners” and “westerners”; and to reflect that after the deaths of Charles Bohlen and Llewellyn Thompson, I was probably the last of the “easterners” that the State Department of those years ever tolerated.

But even in the ensuing period my views about Germany did not basically change. Several years ago, at the time of the great change in Russia, several people, of whom I was one, were asked by the prominent German weekly Die Zeit to contribute, for publication in that journal, their views on what should be the future of Berlin in the years that lay ahead. I was alone (again not surprisingly) in suggesting that instead of the city’s being made again the capital of Germany, it should become the first purely European city, carrying on under the aegis of whatever structure of European unity might then exist (today it would have been the EU); and that it should be encouraged to serve as a transportation hub, an economic and business center, and a cultural center for all of northern and north-central Europe, its zone of useful activity to extend, without infringing on the sovereign independence of any of the respective peoples, to adjoining territories such as the Baltic countries and parts of Scandinavia and Poland.

This would have constituted, as you will readily see, a limited form of German partition. And it would probably have led eventually to a complete one. Because with Berlin eliminated as a candidate for the capital-city status, Germany would have been left with two major centers: Frankfurt and Munich; and neither of these would have been acceptable to the other, or perhaps even to the majority of the German people, as the governmental center for the entire country.3 But a main reason for my advancing this suggestion was the fact that, after the changes in Germany’s northern and eastern borders, Berlin, as I saw it, lay too eccentrically positioned, geographically, with relation to the remainder of the German state to serve successfully over the long run as the governmental center for the entire country. (I may of course be found to be in error in that assumption. Berlin, wherever situated and in whatever capacity, has the vitality and other requisite qualities to take its place among the world’s greatest cities; and this will, perhaps, suffice to overcome the disadvantages of its geographic location.)

So much for the strange positions, so unacceptable to my contemporaries, that I have taken from time to time with relation to German problems. I like to attribute their unacceptability to my tendency, when thinking of problems of this nature, to look farther ahead than diplomats or journalists are generally inclined to do. And I am content to rest under the reproach of having done so. But it took me longer than it should have taken to recognize that in governmental service one is routinely forgiven for saying the wrong thing at the right time, but for saying the right thing at the wrong time—never. This cruel reality was to dog my entire official career.

Let me now add one or two words, by way of background, to what I have just said.

I have never shared the tendency of so many in Europe and elsewhere to regard the modern Germany as by nature an aggressive and dangerous country. I have seen the Germans, en masse, as no better and no worse than other European peoples. The mantle of German unity was one that never sat well on them, to be sure. But from my own standpoint as a historian, I see their part in the origins of the First World War as certainly no greater, and perhaps even smaller, than that of the French and the Russians. And I see the entire terrible period of Nazi ascendancy as the product of the coming together of a whole series of quite abnormal factors. The reaction of the German people to Nazism (so well treated, I thought, in my friend John Lukacs’s recent book4 ) did indeed betray certain serious weaknesses, predominantly in the middle social classes, in coping with the heady influences of modern nationalism. But for those weaknesses they paid a terrible price; and I cannot believe that the weaknesses are going to be repeated in the years that lie ahead.

The reasons, then, for my partiality to German partition did not lie primarily with any sense of moral superiority on the part of the rest of us. They lay rather in the doubt that the remainder of the European community would ever easily or fully accommodate itself to the spectacle of Germany as the great power, and the sole heavily armed great power, of the European mainland; and that unless and until these other Europeans could feel comfortable in their relation to Germany, the Germans would be unlikely to be fully comfortable in their relationship to them.

In trying to place NATO ahead of the EU as the focal point of European unity, and at the same time in looking to Germany to be, together with the US, the greatest miliary power on the European continent, the NATO leaders are, as I see it, making a mistake of historical dimensions. They are trying to revive all the disturbing ghosts of the modern European past. And if the price of avoiding this mistake would be the sacrifice of German unity, I would still be for it.

But these are of course the views of one far too old to be a person of his own time; and they must be taken as such. I can relate them only to the time in which they were formed, and hope that my younger contemporaries will discover, in their youthful willingness to take fresh approaches, better answers to these perennial problems than are now apparent to me.

With warm regards,

George Kennan

  1. 3

    About the final partition of Germany, I had in mind that most of the country, including eastern Germany down to the Czech frontier, would be under a middle German capital—almost certainly, then, Frankfurt or someplace on the fringes of that city; but this would allow for a separate German entity centered on Munich and comprising a good part of the south of the country. This partition, it seemed to me, would have sufficed to disarm the anxieties of other parts of Europe, particularly if each of the parts of the country was to be well secured in an all-European body. Perhaps the euro will lead in that direction. As for Berlin itself, I had thought it might have an EU (or OECD) high commissioner representing the all-European center, but should enjoy, as does the present London, a very high degree of independent municipal administration.

  2. 4

    The Hitler of History (Knopf, 1997).

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